River of Quiet Renown

Roads are few in Alaska’s remote Copper Basin, but the Gulkana River makes passage as simple – and wonderfully adventurous – as stepping into a raft or canoe. 

By Ken Marsh

We’d rafted downriver from Paxson Lake a bend, maybe two, our five-day float trip barely begun, when the splashes of feeding grayling drove us in for a hasty landing. Five men and a boy piled out of our two-boat flotilla and briefly, as we rummaged for fishing gear among dry bags and waterproof totes, the world sang only to the tune of the river. 

I had my rod together in minutes, fitted it with light reel, line, and a dry fly the size and color of the mosquitoes buzzing around my face. Then, framed by spruce forests and rolling hills, the river sliding black and smooth out front, I began a series of false casts, my focus narrowing into what the late author Norman Maclean famously described as “a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish would rise.”  

My fly dropped onto an eddy and I watched it spin idly atop a tiny whirlpool before vanishing in a splash. I yanked my rod back, felt the line tighten. And just that quickly my connection to the river was complete. 

That recent float was my latest in a lifetime of treks on Alaska’s Gulkana River. A National Wild and Scenic River, the Gulkana is quietly renown for its accessibility and wildness. Connected to the world by the state’s road system, the river is easily reached from several points even as its remote wanderings keep it starkly detached from the 21st Century.  

From its sources in the Alaska Range halfway between Denali Park and the Yukon border, the Gulkana’s main stem flows south, entering and exiting 10-mile-long Paxson Lake. From there it continues on, joining with its West Fork and the West Fork’s South Branch to alternately meander and dash through more than 180 miles of perfect wilderness. En route to its terminus at the Copper River – a broad, brown, glacial giant – the Gulkana drains a primal basin larger than the state of Delaware. 

Anglers are lured by grayling that swarm like sail-finned piranhas, and by salmon – Chinook and sockeye – and rainbow trout. Indeed, plentiful grayling and trout to 8 pounds were behind my recent early-August main-stem float. But fishing is only one reason to board a raft, kayak, or canoe and float the Gulkana.

I’ve floated the river’s main stem, forks, and branches many times over the years simply to camp and explore the far-out, lonesome Copper Basin country through which it runs. Thirty years ago, my first time on the Gulkana, I accompanied a Bureau of Land Management survey team on a 10-day canoe trek down the South Branch of the West Fork. The crew was to assess the South Branch’s potential for preservation under National Wild and Scenic status by paddling 150 miles downriver from a headwaters lake to the Gulkana’s main stem. 

Interestingly, that starting-point lake was uncharted; it didn’t appear on maps of the time, an omission that underscored the depth of wilderness we would traverse. During our days on the river we surveyed bird species and nesting sites; floral variety and distribution; recorded the presence of fish and wildlife; and logged evidence of historical use by the region’s first people, the Ahtna Athabascans. In the sandbars we found the signatures of wild creatures – mink, moose, otter, grizzly. And once, rounding a bend, we encountered a lone gray wolf.  

That first journey was an expedition of the Lewis-and-Clark kind, a once-in-a-lifetime voyage of exploration and discovery that set the tone for every float since. Of course, discovery is a relative term. And in Alaska where roads are few and “remote” takes on distinctive meaning, it’s heartening to know that your next grand adventure can begin by simply choosing a river and boarding a raft, kayak, or canoe. 

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Getting Your Feet Wet

The Gulkana is but one of 12,000 Alaska rivers, most of them navigable for experienced rafters, canoeists, and kayakers. Backcountry camping skills, research into whitewater potential, and planning are critical for do-it-yourselfers preparing to float any Alaska river. For first-timers, hiring a river guide is the safest bet.

From the 1,980-mile-long Yukon River – Alaska’s own Mississippi – to streams with abbreviated runs like Kodiak Island’s 24-mile-long Karluk River, there’s an Alaska float trip perfect for you. Here are a few ideas:

Maclaren River

For simple, scenic daylong or overnight canoe or kayak floats, the Maclaren River Lodge offers numerous options at affordable prices. 

An easy day’s drive north of Anchorage at Mile 42 Denali Highway, the lodge rents canoes and will transport your party and canoe upriver via jet boat into the heart of the Maclaren Valley. Day-trip drop-offs start at $50 per person; spend the day canoeing downriver to the lodge. Grayling fishing is excellent, the country open with stunning mountain views and opportunities to see wildlife including caribou, moose, and bear. 

Overnight canoe drop-offs at remote campsites near Maclaren Glacier are also available. For more information, visit http://www.maclarenlodge.com/index.html  

Chulitna River

Few better ways exist to see Denali State Park than from a raft on the Chulitna River. Located off the Parks Highway roughly halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, the Chulitna is a glacial river. On clear days, enjoy truly breathtaking views of 20, 310-foot Denali and its rugged Alaska Range peers. Several Talkeetna-based river outfitters offer half-day, full-day, and multi-day trips. Go with a guide or consider a DIY option with raft rental and drop-off provided. For more information, check out:

Upper Kenai River

Famous for its distinctive emerald-green waters, superb fishing, wildlife, and mountain scenery, the Upper Kenai River (pronounced “Keen-eye”) out of Cooper Landing is a popular float destination. Located about a 90-minute drive south of Anchorage via the Seward Highway (an official National Scenic Byway and All-American Road) and Sterling Highway, the 12-mile-long stretch of river flows through the quiet community of Cooper Landing and into the wild Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Numerous river guides offering raft or drift boat floats ranging from two hours to all day. These trips are worth doing for the mountain views, but anglers will want to look into outfitters offering fishing options. For a listing of local rafting businesses, visit http://www.alaska.org/destination/cooper-landing/rafting-tours

Gulkana River

Learn more about this featured river at https://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/documents/files/PublicRoom_Alaska_Gulkana-River-Brochure.pdf

For more Alaska river floating ideas, see more information on dozens of possibilities at http://www.alaska.org/float-trips

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Spring Wings

More than 300 Pacific Flyway bird species funnel through Southeast Alaska each spring, crowding the skies in numbers sure to inspire even a casual birder.

By Ken Marsh

Salmon Bay Lake on Prince of Wales Island was alive with birds that late-April evening, proof that even here in Southeast Alaska no winter lasts forever. In the cedars away from the shoreline varied thrushes trilled and Pacific wrens sang, while across the water a pair of common loons called in their high-pitched, howling way. Woodpeckers in the hills above the lake tapped rhythmically against dead spruces and the sky seemed a country of its own where winged creatures passed in droves, honking, quacking, and tweeting.

Roy and I had taken a skiff down the lake to scout for fish, returning at dusk by the guiding light of a campfire Tony had built on the beach. The air smelled of skunk cabbage and wood smoke, and by the time we’d joined Tony at the fire the stars had come out. Flights of geese passed low overhead as we settled around the coals, talking quietly. Even after midnight when we entered our rented U.S. Forest Service cabin to sleep the geese continued flying; we listened to them all night long, yelping and whooping in the darkness.

Over the years I’ve traveled many times in April from my home in Anchorage to Southeast Alaska, always for the same reasons and always with the same results: To search not for birds, but for spring steelhead – big, bright sea-run rainbow trout. Yet on every trip birds – not fish – have proven the common denominator. Cued this time of year by the mild days of an advancing spring, they descend upon local wetlands, coastlines and forests, often in startling numbers. On these trips, fly rod in hand, I’ve come to count on watching birds, listening to their calls and identifying as many species as I can, whether or not the tides bring fish.

Southeast Alaska extends some 600 miles from Icy Bay northwest of Yakutat to Prince of Wales Island’s southernmost tip just north of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. A wet, temperate, coastal region where sunken mountain ranges off the mainland rise from the sea to form hundreds of islands and islets, Southeast encompasses more than 35,000 square miles of land area and nearly 10,000 miles of shoreline. The region is home to the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest – the largest national forest in the United States – and is a natural thoroughfare for more than 300 species of Pacific Flyway birds.

Waterfowl, seabirds, shorebirds, songbirds, raptors, even tiny hummingbirds arrive between late March and early May, many en route to breeding grounds a thousand miles farther north. Some stay on to nest and raise young in the region’s seaside bluffs, estuaries, and rain forests. Mixed in with the snowbirds are familiar resident species like bald eagles, great blue herons, Steller’s jays, and sooty grouse.

The migrants’ return is a celebrated spring event in many Southeast communities. From Ketchikan’s April-long Hummingbird Festival and Wrangell’s Stikine River Birding Festival to Yakutat’s Tern Festival in late May and early June, the birds are welcomed, logged on checklists, and captured in pictures and art contests. Meanwhile, beyond the region’s isolated fishing hamlets, legions of winged things pass unheralded through the far-flung, out-of-the-way places.

Back at Salmon Bay Lake next morning I sat outside our cabin sipping tea in the sunlight. The geese had passed in the night, but thrushes still sang and an early-rising woodpecker knocked on a hollow spruce nearby.

I’d pulled on my waders and my steelhead rod leaned against the cabin, rigged and ready, when a flash of color caught my eye. Not two feet from my nose a rufous hummingbird hovered, its metallic-raspberry chin patch glowing in a sunbeam. Drawn by a splash of hot-pink embroidery on my ball cap, the diminutive bird paused on buzzing wings before breaking off and vanishing into the forest.

I can’t recall now whether I hooked a steelhead that morning; they’re fickle fish to be sure. But I’ve never forgotten the hummingbird. Perhaps that says something about me, that I’m more birder than angler. Or maybe it speaks to the power of Southeast Alaska and the spectacle of color and sound delivered here each spring on millions of northbound wings.

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The Art of Grayling IV

The conclusion.

By Ken Marsh

Perhaps the best news about grayling is that anglers needn’t be longtime Alaskans to find, catch and appreciate them. All that’s required is a rod and reel – a light fly rod or ultra-light spinning outfit, whichever you prefer – a few bits of tackle, and directions to the nearest grayling stream or lake.  

Fly-fishers seeking grayling normally use rods ranging in size from 2- to 6-weight; the lightest rods will handle even the chunkiest fish, but heavier models are sometimes needed to cast across larger streams and lakes. A weight-forward floating line with an 8- or 10-foot-long leader will handle pretty much all Alaska grayling fishing situations, since these fish rarely lie far from the surface. 

Ultra-light spinning rods are perfect for catching grayling. Rig them with 4- to 6-pound-test monofilament line and, when adjusting the reel, ease up on the drag to maximize the sport promised in the fishes’ feathery runs and occasional leaps.

In streams, look for grayling in deeper, calmer pools; in lakes, watch for them near stream inlets and outlets and in protected bays. The old saw, “match the hatch,” can be useful in selecting a fly, lure or bait on a given lake or stream. Keep an eye out for grayling food items like mayflies or caddis buzzing low over the waters, salmon spawning in the pools (stray eggs are protein-rich delicacies), or young minnow-size fish schooling near stream banks. 

If feeding grayling can be seen breaking the surface – and occasionally, even when no fish are rising – try a dry fly. A sampler of excellent dry fly patterns for grayling might include Adams, Irresistible, Elk Hair Caddis, Humpies, Griffith’s Gnat, Mosquito and, of course, the Black Gnat and Royal Coachman. Fly sizes should range from Nos. 20 to 10. Anglers with spinning rods can successfully cast dry flies for grayling by clipping a small bobber 18 inches or so above the fly. The bobber’s added bulk allows weightless flies to be cast long distances.

Many fly-fishers agree that for every grayling caught on a dry fly, at least twice as many wait below the surface to be caught on nymphs. Good nymph fly patterns include Hare’s Ear, Zug Bug, Bitch Creek, and Pheasant Tail in sizes 18 to 10. These nymphs in bead-head varieties can also be fished under a bobber by anglers with spinning outfits.

Grayling are often suckers for small, flashy spinners – Mepps, Rooster Tail, and Panther Martin brands are a few local staples. Try casting sizes 0 to 2 in a variety of colors. Bait fishers can catch grayling on salmon eggs and mealworms. When salmon are spawning nearby and opportunistic grayling are gobbling up the eggs, salmon-egg fly patterns such as Iliamna Pinkies or beads will effectively match the hatch. 

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Ancient, elegant and, in a most innocent sense, gullible, grayling are unique characters cut from the rare and precious tapestry that is Alaska. For a few old-timers (and for this one in particular) they compose the first lines of a long, colorful angling story. And for those new to fishing upstream of the 60th parallel north, the little fish promise admission to a world of clean, wild waters and unspoiled vistas.

It’s bedtime at my Denali Highway campsite. The fire has burned down into coals and I’ve run out of willow sticks to feed it. A hard frost glitters on my tent fly nearby; the grayling lake will be frozen by morning. 

For now those fish with the flashing scales and tall sail fins will rise and leap only in my heart, where Alaska’s arctic and subarctic waters flow year-round. But I’ll catch them here again next spring, and surely for many seasons to come, when the aurora fades in the light of the midnight sun. 

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The Art of Grayling III

Part III

By Ken Marsh

In camp along the Denali Highway the night is broken by the popping of my campfire and, more subtly, by the hissing of a creek that enters one end of the little grayling lake and exits the other. Those water sounds have me thinking again about grayling, and about time, and the way the two have merged and mingled to form a part of me. 

I found them first in the mid-1960s, north of Anchorage in a brook off the Glenn Highway not far from Eureka Summit. The slightly warped bamboo fly rod my father assembled for me easily spanned the brook, allowing me to dangle midstream a dry fly – probably a Black Gnat or Royal Coachman, grayling favorites of my youth that remain powerful medicine today. The grayling in that brook were particularly small, perhaps six or eight inches long, but voracious. I can still picture them leaping from the water for my fly, sometimes two or three fish at once; they made the surface boil. I caught them, too, fish after wriggling, wet, delightful fish, little trophies for a little angler.  

            A year or two later, when I was old enough to step into the Copper River Basin wilderness each fall to hunt caribou with a close-knit group of family and friends, I was appointed camp fisherman. Only six or seven years old, I took the job seriously. While the grown men busied themselves scoping and hunting for caribou, I would catch grayling on whatever creek was nearby – and in that broad, rolling taiga-and-tundra country grayling water such as Flat Creek, Crooked Creek, or the Little Nelchina River was never far away. I learned along the way to scrape off the scales with a pocketknife and to clean each fish carefully. And when our grizzled camp cook, the patriarch of our group, rolled those grayling in pancake flour and fried them in bacon grease on the Coleman stove, it was as if a four-star restaurant were operating beneath the tarp that served as our mobile cook shack. 

Since those very early days, grayling have resurfaced in my life continually. I’ve caught them in the Gold Rush waters of the Klondike country – in streams like Bonanza Creek, North Fork of the Klondike, the Forty-mile River – and in the ice-cold lakes off the Richardson and Denali highways, in the rivers of windswept southwestern Alaska, and in the tea-colored creeks of the Susitna Valley. From an angler’s standpoint, those hours spent fishing for grayling account for a lifetime of Alaska summers. Sometimes, the connection between those fish and me can seem almost spiritual.

(To be continued.)

The Art of Grayling II

Part II of several.

By Ken Marsh

Dwellers of clear, cold streams and lakes, Arctic grayling are elegant creatures easily identified by their uniquely oversized pink- and powder-blue-spotted dorsal fins, purple- and turquoise-sequined flanks, small pouty mouths, and bellies that seem rubbed with gold dust. Anglers adore them for their beauty and for their willingness to strike a variety of spinners, spoons, baits and flies. Grayling are especially renown among fly-fishers for their tendency to rise to dry flies.

Compared to Alaska’s tackle-busting legends – halibut to 459 pounds, world-record king salmon weighing more than 97 pounds, and steelhead topping 42 pounds –grayling are smallish and delicately built; the state record, caught in 2008, weighed a hair over five pounds. As a result, these modest fish never draw trophy-fishing mobs, which is fortunate since the best grayling waters and the environments surrounding them are generally fragile as the fish themselves and intolerant of crowding or heavy pressure. 

At a glance, grayling seem cast from an ancient mold: their broad, scalloped scales and webbed, sail-like dorsal fins suggest a living fossil pulled from mudstone and magically brought to life. In fact, Arctic grayling are Pleistocene fish, ice age survivors that over the last 10,000 to 20,000 years have spread from North Slope and Yukon River Valley origins to become common throughout Alaska’s Southcentral, Southwestern, Interior and Arctic regions. The only part of the state where they’re not found in abundance is in the Southeastern panhandle. 

Today, many excellent grayling fisheries can be reached from Alaska’s highway systems. Good grayling waters include many of the streams and lakes along the Parks, Glenn and Denali highways north of Anchorage in Southcentral; the Tok Cutoff, Richardson, Alaska, and Steese highways outside of the Interior city of Fairbanks; and the Dalton Highway snaking into the Arctic north of Fairbanks. The isolated, abbreviated road system outside of Nome is also known for excellent grayling fishing opportunities.

(To be continued.)

The Art of Grayling I

Ancient, elegant and innocently gullible, the little fish with the big dorsal fins promise admission to a world of clean, wild waters and unspoiled vistas.

By Ken Marsh

I’d uttered my good-byes earlier that evening, not aloud, but inwardly, and without sadness. Of course, the grayling wouldn’t have heard me anyway, nor would they have cared. Hardly a fly rod’s length from the lakeshore, the little fish with the sail-like dorsal fins busied themselves sipping black flies and mosquitoes off the surface. They fed even as reflections of pink tundra hills faded into darkness and the water rings they left behind sparkled with starlight. 

Now an astonishing galaxy of faraway planets and suns whirls overhead, and my campsite overlooking the lake glows by the light of my fire. I’m little more than a speck in the wilderness northeast of Paxson, a mostly deserted community at the junction of the Richardson and Denali highways, and the early-September night wields a hard, cold edge. Concealed by darkness, ptarmigan cackle around me like comedic villains (and judging by the varying placements of their calls, the tundra chickens have me surrounded). The birds are settling into their willow roosts and will soon hush for the night, leaving me alone to stir the campfire coals and savor some solitude and untainted air. 

This is the universe as I’ve known it for much of my life. Certainly, the moment represents life as I prefer it, the venue far-flung and sparsely peopled, fresh, wild, pure. When we envision Alaska, we gather images of mountain ranges, glaciers, aurora borealis, caribou, grizzlies and wide-open tundras. These icons and perhaps a thousand others set this place apart. 

For an angler, though, nothing defines Alaska more distinctly than grayling. I found them here 50 years ago, when time for me began, in little mountain creeks, roadside lakes, and large glacial rivers. And although I’ve said farewell to them this evening, it is only for the season. I will find them again when the ice, now forming on the pond nearby, trickles away next May.

(To be continued.)

What the Coho Said

Coaxing Alaska silver salmon to strike dry flies is sport of the highest order.

By Ken Marsh

I found the fish late that afternoon lurking in the frog water (angler’s slang for languid sloughs, stagnant creek mouths), a dozen or more cruising slowly, prowling. That’s typical of silver salmon. Determined as they are to reach sacred gravel they’re notorious dawdlers, drawn to shady backwaters where they loiter like truant punks in dark arcades.

I knelt on the bank across from them, stripping line from my reel, gauging the distance. Figured I could hit them after one false cast, maybe two, followed by a double-haul to extend my reach. My fly would plop onto the surface just ahead of them. And then … well, that was the question.

Called coho by many, silver salmon are adored by Alaska anglers for their willingness to crush baits, lures and flies. Not all Pacific salmon are so accommodating. As part of their lifecycle silvers spend two or three years at sea, feeding voraciously on herring, needlefish, sand lance — nearly any bright, flashing, living thing they can jam into their toothy mouths. That instinct never leaves them; those hunter reflexes remain even after they stop feeding and enter natal streams to spawn.

Almost ready, I inhaled deeply, focusing. Then my rod tip was up and I was into my back-cast, eyes locked on those torpedo silhouettes. Beyond the fish and the frog water I was aware of the passing river. It was a southwestern Alaska beauty and I could hear it and see it in my mind dashing coal-black from its source high in the cloud-veiled Ahklun Mountains.

Over five decades I’ve tackled silvers in many places in many ways. I’ve played them on fly rods in far-flung Bering Sea tributaries, stuck them with saltwater gear while mooching herring outside the port of Seward. I’ve pulled them leaping and flopping from Alaska’s famous Kenai River and from streams throughout the Susitna Valley, enticing them with buck-tails, spinners and cured-roe baits. And one steamy summer 20 years ago on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, I wrangled “feeders” in a rocky bay where hunting salmon were marked by squalls of needlefish leaping ahead frantically to escape.

This time was different, though. I planned to ask the fish, aggressive as they can be, to leave the safety of darkness to strike a fly presented where the water meets the sky. That’s asking a great deal of any salmon.

My rod fell forward, pointing toward the fish, and floating fly line rocketed through the guides. At the last second, I gripped the reel and lifted my rod tip, halting the fly’s trajectory, letting it fall lightly as possible onto the water. The fly was a Pink Pollywog — a ridiculous assemblage of hot-pink saddle hackle, clipped deer hair and sparkling tinsel — and it landed with an audible splash. The salmon winced, halting mid-cruise, and for a moment the world seemed to stop.

The fish looked nervous, their lidless eyes glaring. I twitched my rod tip and the Pollywog strutted sharply toward me, leaving a tiny wake. I expected the salmon to bolt, but they remained transfixed.

Another twitch and the fish — the entire bunch — eased in unison toward my fly. I began twitching my rod in short, continuous pecks causing the fly to break the surface in little splashes.

And that’s all it took. An 11-pound buck with a faint ruddy blush attacked so swiftly that I scarcely had time to react. Pow!Leaping two feet into the air, haloed by a galaxy of droplets, the fish resembled an exploding star.

Today that image lingers, tribute to a question asked and an answer received in a game played by men like me whose lives are defined by rivers.

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